Scientist gains humility from chimpanzee research

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Maureen McCarthy can be compared to a modern-day Jane Goodall. She researches chimpanzee behavior, travels the world and was a science blogger for Scientific American. We got a chance to ask Maureen a few questions about what she has learned from studying chimpanzees and what it’s like to pursue science as a woman. Check out her thoughtful answers below. 

Can you describe your research at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology?

I am a Guest Researcher at MPI. I’m here analyzing data for my PhD thesis at the University of Southern California. I’m using a genetic approach to examine chimpanzee distribution in a human-dominated environment in western Uganda. These chimpanzees live in an area with only small remaining patches of forest and a human population that is ever-increasing. So, although chimpanzees are very skilled at traveling through the landscape to find food and mates, the population I study must struggle increasingly as their habitat diminishes and food becomes more difficult to find.

What motivated you to study primates? 

I have always found nonhuman primates interesting, as do many people, because of their similarities to us. When I learned about sign language use in Washoe and other great apes, however, I really began to understand that we as humans are not as unique as we are sometimes led to believe. This spurred my scientific curiosity in studying them for their own sake. Later, when I learned about the threats to their survival, I became interested in studying aspects of their behavior relating to their ability to withstand these threats. 

I know you were writing a blog for Scientific American. What was your mission for this blog? What kind of feedback did you receive?

While I was doing field research for my PhD thesis, I wrote a blog series for the Expeditions Blog section of Scientific American. My mission was two-fold: First, I wanted to convey to readers what it’s like to do a field study of chimpanzees, especially those living in such a compromised habitat. Second, I wanted to use my experiences as a gateway to discuss chimpanzees in the contexts of science and conservation. With that in mind, I typically used a personal experience as a gateway for writing about a particular topic I felt readers might be interested in.

I’ve received a lot of positive feedback on the blog series. I have enjoyed the opportunity to introduce other scientists and members of the general public to my chimpanzee study population. I’ve also discovered the joy of blogging and hope to do more of it in the future.

How has working with chimpanzees affected your life?

Wow, this is a tough question. I’ve learned so much by working with chimpanzees. If I had to focus on one thing, I would say chimpanzees have cultivated in me a greater humility and respect for other beings.

What are some of the most interesting insights you have had while in the field?

Again, a tough question! In the case of the chimpanzees I study, I was continually surprised by their resilience. Despite the enormous challenges facing them, they appeared to continually make use of what was available to them. Their circumstances are largely out of their control, so they appeared to flexibly adapt their behavior to the situations with which they were faced. It gave me a sense of hope for both them and us.

I was continually surprised by their resilience. Despite the enormous challenges facing them, they appeared to continually make use of what was available to them.

What has your experience in academia and conducting fieldwork as a woman? Do you face obstacles that men don’t?

If I look beyond my own personal experiences, I can see the empirical reality of how difficult it is for women in science. We know women are less likely than men to achieve many of the milestones associated with a successful scientific career. There are apparently a number of reasons why this still holds true, a major reason being the continued difficulties of balancing career and family.

Personally, although I can relate to these challenges, I also feel like I’ve had a lot of opportunities and have been well supported. So while I certainly think about these issues, I am hopeful that the culture of inequality in science will change. I think that recent articles highlighting these issues are an important step in the right direction, but of course there are few solutions so far.

I am hopeful that the culture of inequality in science will change. I think that recent articles highlighting these issues are an important step in the right direction, but of course there are few solutions so far.

 Who are your heroes, and why?

My mother is a hero to me. She passed away last year. Despite the ups and downs she faced, she was very strong and very positive. She just kept moving forward, and she rarely ever complained. She was also really confident and classy. If I can carry myself through my career and personal life with a fraction of the bravery and poise she had, I’ll be very lucky indeed. 

What do you hope to accomplish in the field in future years?

I’d like to continue to use a multidisciplinary approach to study chimpanzee behavioral flexibility. The truth is, however, that I hope we still have chimpanzees to go to the field and study in future years. There are dire threats to their survival and they extend well beyond the population I study. Conservation efforts have become a critical part of doing research.

I’m currently an advisor to a conservation initiative aimed at one of the chimpanzee communities I am studying. This particular community is similar to others in my study region because the chimpanzees have lost much of their forest to a growing human population. However, unlike other chimpanzees in the area, they are being monitored closely as part of a long-term research project led by Dr. Matt McLennan. The program is simple. It aims to support families who own private forest patches by sponsoring their children’s education. In turn, the families will agree to conserve their remaining forests and will be provided with seedlings to plant, which also benefits them and their local water supply in the process. If successful, the program will be expanded and can benefit other families and chimpanzee communities in the region.

Thank you to Maureen for sharing her insights as a Renaissance Woman. To learn more about the project Maureen is involved in and how to support it, visit: . http://www.razoo.com/story/Save-A-Chimp-Empower-A-Child-1

 Maureen McCarthy is a PhD Candidate in Biology at the University of Southern California. She received her Master’s Degree in Experimental Psychology from Central Washington University, where she studied the gestural communication of chimpanzees who have acquired American Sign Language signs. She has more than a decade of experience studying captive and free-ranging primates. Follow on Twitter @mccarthymaureen.